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Anti-Islam speakers set talk on refugees, invite all Idaho lawmakers

BOISE – Two speakers with controversial anti-Islam messages have reserved an auditorium in the Idaho state Capitol and invited every Idaho legislator to a talk on refugee resettlement during the opening week of Idaho’s legislative session.

The event seems to have taken some legislators by surprise, though they say any group is invited to use that space, within certain guidelines.

Idaho’s highest-ranking state senator, President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he initially thought the presentation was from pro-refugee resettlement groups.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said Idaho Falls resident Steve Hiett contacted him about how to reserve the room, and Davis referred him to the appropriate staffers.

“I don’t know who this group is or what they intend to say,” Davis said.

An email sent to every Idaho senator and representative says the presentation is being sponsored by “a group of concerned Idaho citizens.” The Jan. 14 presentation is billed as “a very important presentation on refugee resettlement.”

The two speakers are Shahram Hadian, a Christian pastor from Chattaroy, Wash., and Christopher Holton, vice president of the Center for Security Policy.

Last year, Hadian addressed a dozen Idaho lawmakers during lunch in a House meeting room, where he warned of Muslims spreading into conservative communities in the West and seeking to change the culture. He said at the time, “We must curb and limit Islamic immigration and stop the refugee dumps.”

Davis, the Senate majority leader, said Hiett has contacted him before to discuss issues regarding refugee resettlement and public safety, and their conversations have been cordial. “If he possesses any of the troubling attributes that are in that policy, I’ve never seen evidence,” Davis said.

Hiett couldn’t be reached for comment.

Hill, the Senate president pro-tem, said he’s not interested in attending the session, “Based on the gentleman’s talk last year.”

But he said individual legislators could decide whether they’d attend. “I’m not going to dictate to them what they should attend and what they shouldn’t,” he said.

Hill added that he has made an effort to educate himself on the refugee issue.

He and his wife, along with another senator, made an extended visit to a refugee resettlement program at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls that’s been a target of local controversy, and discussed the program with officials there, he said. Hill said he’s also met with the state’s director of homeland security and a representative of the governor’s office to discuss issues regarding refugee resettlement in Idaho.

“I’ve done everything I can to try to understand it,” he said. “I’m more interested in an unbiased approach, so that we look at it from a logical manner, both the pros and the cons … rather than a one-sided presentation. But that’s just me.”

Jan Reeves, longtime director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, said he has issues with the proposed session.

“I’m concerned that their objective might be to influence legislators against Muslims and the dangers of Sharia law, but they’re using refugee resettlement as some form of attraction.” Reeves added, “I’m very concerned that the information that may be presented will not be objective, factual information about refugee resettlement.”

He noted that Hadian has “spoken about his belief that we are all at risk of Sharia law being implemented in the United States. This is something that I don’t agree with at all, and it doesn’t have anything to do with refugee resettlement.”

Reeves encouraged lawmakers to seek information from other sources and to contact his office if they have questions about refugee programs.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, was unaware of the scheduled presentation until contacted by a reporter this week. “It’s certainly not sponsored by the House of Representatives,” he said.

Under policies adopted by the Legislative Council, events held in the Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium must be open to the public, free, and non-commercial in nature – nothing can be sold. Groups must clean up after themselves, and state officials have the option of charging them for extra janitorial or other services if needed, but there’s no charge for use of the room.

The policies also state, “Reservations may be denied to groups or individuals who support hate, violence, disrespect for the rule of law, or other objectionable behavior.”

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, who invited Hadian to give the lunch presentation to lawmakers last year, also wasn’t available for comment on Tuesday.

Hadian, a former Muslim who was born in Iran, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Washington in 2012, drawing 3.3 percent of the vote in the blanket primary and running as a Republican. He has given frequent presentations in Idaho in the past year.

Holton has pushed anti-Sharia law efforts in dozens of states. The Center for Security Policy, of which he is vice president, is headed by Frank Gaffney Jr., a former defense official and conspiracy theorist described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.”

Note: This story has been updated to correct the hometown of Rep. Vito Barbieri.
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